The three-day government shutdown earlier this week forced lawmakers to revisit a thorny issue that crops up every time federal funding lapses.
Should the country’s national parks and monuments remain open to the public even with fewer resources to protect visitors and maintain basic services?
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke decided to keep open most national parks and other sites from Saturday through Monday while the government was partially shuttered — a stark contrast to the three-week 2013 shutdown when the country’s iconic public lands were closed during the peak fall season.
"The Obama administration wanted to make a point, to maybe inflict more pain from a shutdown, and the Trump administration, particularly Zinke, wanted to minimize the pain," Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) told E&E News this week. Daines, who is close to Zinke, leads the Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks.
But Zinke’s decision resulted in a patchwork of situations: Some sites were closed while others were partially open. In some instances, there was nobody to pick up trash, keep the restrooms open or provide general oversight.
"Park roads, lookouts, trails, and open-air memorials will generally remain accessible to visitors, but there will be no NPS-provided visitor services, including restrooms, trash collection, facilities and roads maintenance (including plowing), and public information," said the January Interior shutdown contingency plan for NPS.
"The park superintendent will make a determination, on a case-by-case basis using the criteria below, whether a commercial, concession, and/or partnership facility may remain open or its operations continued during a lapse in appropriations."
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said there should be a "uniform policy" on park operations to underscore the ramifications of a government shutdown.
"I was somewhat amused because it looks like they were doing it without protection being there, without adequate supervision," said Cardin, who represents many federal employees. "We all want to provide services to people of this country, but there is a consequence for a government shutdown, and I didn’t quite understand what they were doing."
Some parks cautioned visitors to enter at their own risk during the shutdown, and The Washington Post reported that snowmobiling tourists in Yellowstone National Park broke park rules and drove too close to Old Faithful.
"There is no substitute for National Park Service staff and their expertise, and it is not wise to put the public or our park resources at risk by allowing for half-measures to keep them open," said Emily Douce, director of budget and appropriations in the government affairs office of the National Parks Conservation Association.
"People deserve the best experience they can with park rangers available to educate, guide and ensure their safety," she said.
The NPCA estimated about one-third of 417 National Park System units were closed, including parks, monuments and other historical sites, during this week’s partial government shutdown.
Asked whether she thought keeping some parks open during the shutdown threatened public safety, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto said she didn’t see "any indication" that that was the case.
The Nevada Democrat said it was Interior’s decision to keep sites open. "I’m not going to question [it] one way or the other," she said.
Shutdown reimbursement questions
The shuttering of popular national parks and monuments traditionally has been the most visible manifestation of a federal government shutdown.
In 2013, several states paid to keep iconic sites open for visitors during the October shutdown. They were not reimbursed by the federal government, which didn’t sit well with many lawmakers.
Utah shelled out about $1.6 million to keep its five national parks open. But when the government reopened, "the Park Service pocketed what the state gave them and wouldn’t give it back," House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) said earlier this week. Bishop called the move "slimy."
Back then, Western senators on both sides of the aisle called on Interior to refund them. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) introduced bipartisan legislation that would have required NPS to reimburse states that paid to keep federal sites open during the 2013 shutdown, but it didn’t go anywhere.
In fact, Interior’s policy is not to reimburse partners, including concessioners and states, that make "donations" to keep sites open during a federal government shutdown.
"At the superintendent’s discretion and with approval of the Regional Director or Director, parks may enter into arrangements with local governments, cooperating associations, and/or other third parties (see below for concessioners and Commercial Use Authorization holders) for donation of specified visitor services," the agency contingency plan stated.
"The NPS will not reimburse third parties (through payments, franchise fee relief or any other consideration) who provide such visitor services," it said.
New York and Arizona gave Interior money to keep the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island and the Grand Canyon open during this recent shutdown.
New York spent about $65,000, while Arizona provided $187,873 to Uncle Sam to keep the Grand Canyon open for this entire week.
Since the government reopened Tuesday, Arizona will receive reimbursement for six of the seven days it paid for, but not for Monday when the government was closed.
Jeremy Barnum, chief NPS spokesman, said a "number of partner groups and concessioners" donated funds to keep park areas open during the three-day government closure, which began at midnight last Friday.
"Park concessioner Guest Services, Inc., provided portable comfort stations at a number of locations along the National Mall in Washington, D.C. and the District of Columbia Department of Public Works provided trash removal at some NPS properties across Washington D.C. that would otherwise not be serviced during a shutdown," he wrote in an email.
"World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument in Hawaii remained operational through private donations from park partners. The USS Arizona Memorial program, internal museums as well as Pearl Harbor historical sites all remained open," Barnum said.
Asked whether states should be reimbursed for paying to keep sites open during a shutdown, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), a member of the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee, said he’d "have to take a look at that," noting he supported legislation to do that after the 2013 closure.
No shutdown at all
Several Republicans told E&E News the real problem was the budget impasse itself.
"I think the parks ought to always be open," Alexander said. "There shouldn’t have been a shutdown in the first place."
Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who also leads the Interior appropriations subcommittee, agreed with the larger sentiment of avoiding shutdowns altogether.
"I’d rather not even have to think about policies to what we do with our parks or any of our other agencies," she said this week. "We just should be doing our jobs, which is moving forward with the budgets, whether you are NPS or the EPA, that you can do your job."
Neither Daines nor Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said they thought Congress needed to specifically legislate a policy on parks and shutdowns, noting instead that they support legislation to automatically extend government funding and take shutdowns off the table.
"That is the right answer so that you can’t use a shutdown as a negotiating tool," said Daines.